As I step into the den-like interior of Barberian's Steak House, I see my date already there, nursing a beer at the brass-topped bar. Oh god. Am I late? As I start to offer an apology, I follow his gaze upward to a basketball game on a TV.
I could have kept him waiting another half-hour and he'd be happy as a baked clam. This is just the tip of the big fat sirloin when it comes to why, if the onus is on the lady to book Valentine's Day dinner, I say go for the gusto.
Whether it's the low-carb craze, the irony-fuelled appetite for nostalgia or a general fatigue with haute cuisine, steak houses are undergoing a renaissance. B.C.-based chain The Keg saw sales rise in 2004 to $321.8-million from $297.8-million in 2003. And steak houses have been popping up everywhere, from the pages of Vogue to the tabloid US Weekly -- was that Julia Roberts noshing on steak shortly before she gave birth? Clearly a real woman.
Arron Barberian, owner of the venerable 46-year-old Toronto steak house Barberian's, says he feels back in vogue. "I'll look around the restaurant. I'm in my 40s and I'll be the oldest person in here," he says. "We go in and out of fashion with the hipsters and we're quite in right now."
And as a Valentine's date spot, unless your guy is a vegan or a serious metrosexual, he will feel at ease in a steak house.
The loud carpeting, burgundy accents and well-worn edges nurture him. If you're late, he will not be perched uncomfortably on an over-designed stainless-steel stool waiting for the too-cool servers to notice him -- that is, if they can hear him over the throbbing house music.
Then there's the food. Dining out can be a minefield. Sure, you know not to order sloppy pasta. You could take him to the hot new restaurant, but will he find enough to eat on the tapas menu? Do you really want to risk mispronouncing bouillabaisse or have this be the night you find out you're allergic to tamarind?
"If it's about getting the guy in the mood, go with what you know, and guys know steak," Barberian says. He says he is heavily booked tonight for pre-Valentine's dinners in addition to Monday.
"We'll see a proposal or two. I know it."(A Barberian claim to fame is that Richard and Liz got engaged for the first time here, on Feb. 13, 1964, although maybe that doesn't bode well.)
Larry Lighter, who owns Moishes steak house in Montreal, is also heavily booked for Valentine's Day. "A woman chooses a steak house to please her man," he says. "A man chooses a steak house to please himself."
As our avuncular, bow-tied waiter ushers us to our table, I realize there's another upside to being utterly outnumbered by cow-eating men (such as that huge central table hosting the disappointingly well-behaved cast and associates of the Trailer Park Boys). I can't help but feel like a paragon of femininity.
The waiter leaps ahead to pull out the table so I can sit down with ease. Is my smile just a little bit more gracious than usual?
In what feels like the traditional steak house hierarchy, I, in turn, defer to my date when it comes to ordering.
Like many guys, he's good at steak.
"This is what we do," he explains, sotto voce, as though he's betraying the brotherhood. "We look at the most expensive steak on the menu. Then we work our way back based on cost, hunger and what kind of man we feel like that night."
Moving back from Chateaubriand for two at $78, tonight he's feeling like a 16-ounce rib eye, which he orders after a discussion of the house definition of medium rare -- there's nothing less macho than a guy who orders his expensive American beef well done.
Despite the refreshing brevity of the menu -- there is no sautéed-in-this, sprinkled-with-that -- I don't know what kind of gal I am tonight. Filet mignon seems too girly. After an earnest dissertation on the differing textures of each steak, he suggests a sirloin. Since it's the only thing not wrapped in bacon under 12 ounces, I go for it.
I have never gabbed this much while deciding what to order. Talk about interactive.
As long as we're going for retro appeal, I suggest a shrimp cocktail to start -- one of the highlights of the steak house dinners of my childhood. For a mere $5 more, we can have a lobster salad. Done. And no, it's not three flecks of flesh on a saucer. It's a delicious heaping mound of lobster.
When the steaks arrive, I understand why this is practically a house of worship. I think I hear trumpets. They are massive, impressive and cooked to a T. I eat just about all of my 10 ounces, hoping it's true that guys like a girl with an appetite.
A few weeks later, I suggest a trip to The Keg Mansion, home of the special occasion. I'd been hearing in-the-know friends and restaurateurs sing the Keg's praises too often not to check it out.
One friend says her boyfriend arranged a thrillingly cheesy birthday for her, right down to candles on a cake and a gaggle of friends waiting upstairs in the bar for the post-date surprise.
"I would never go to a trendy restaurant and try to surprise my boyfriend. Some of them probably don't allow candles in their desserts," she says.
"I used to be a Keg snob," TV producer Nan Row says. "Now I love it. The steak is always great for what you pay for and they know how to make a martini. I tell all my friends to go."
As we pull up in a cab, I realize that the Mansion is practically a theme park. Grand entrance, polite greeter at the door and deeply attentive service from Janice, our server for the evening. I'm giddy. There's no cool factor. Janice is just nice. And we're nice back and nice to each other. I hesitate, then grab the banquette seat next to a foursome of laid-back university students in jeans, sneakers and pocket chains.
Steak Boy offers a choice piece of man-iquette. "Men never want to sit facing out. They risk getting caught checking out a pretty girl walking by."
Clearly, he is so cozy in this environment he's sharing secrets willy-nilly.
"Most restaurants are designed by women or gay men," he tells me as I gaze wonderingly at the bushy eighties-style silk flowers sitting beside us on a ledge. "That's not a bad thing, but after a long day at work, this is like stepping into a warm bath."
I take forever to order, bathed in the warm bath of brocade, dark wood, Frank Sinatra crooning on the sound system. Is that Frank Sinatra? It's not even loud enough to figure out. What bliss.
The menu is vast. There are even options for vegetarians (a colleague swears she made it through her meatless years on Keg blue cheese salads and monster baked potatoes). Steak Boy explains the Keg lingo. (Ever hear of the 'Baseball Sirloin'? Hint: it looks like it sounds). I am slightly more confident since Barberian's. Still, I let Janice help me decide between the winter special -- boneless rib eye -- and the bone-in version. He has the prime rib, only after he ascertains that it will be pink. I choose baked potato. He suggests the garlic mashed, but then offers to share his. Sweet.
I get crab cakes to start and as I nibble at them, I watch him figure out his crab cheddar soup. A pile of crabmeat on a piece of toast floats in a thick orange goo. After dunking the whole thing in the soup, he gets out his knife and fork. We are now in a Chunky Soup ad. And he's in heaven.
The soup reminds him of the packaged scalloped potatoes his mother made. The sauce on my crab cakes reminds me of Thousand Islands dressing I ate as a kid. Look, we're talking about our childhoods. The steak house as muse.
Now almost full, we dig into our main course. I know that if I can't make it through all 14 ounces, there's no shame in asking for a doggy bag. My rib eye is juicy and cooked exactly the way I like it. His prime rib is a classic. We exchange bites.
I'm getting used to this. I feel a Chateaubriand for two coming on.